In the age of opinion, everyone is king…



In my last article “Digging through dirt in the land of the pure” I talked about Pakistan being clean on the inside. Now I want to explore that a bit more and be a bit controversial at the same time.


The reason people are here are cleaner on the INSIDE has nothing to do with them being better people. There are just as many ratbags here as anywhere else in the world. It is about the ability to look inside. Islam (as indeed all religions) encourages people to clean themselves from the inside before setting out to clean the world. Wasn’t it Jesus who said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”? In fact all of the prophets, from Adam through to Muhammad, have said the same thing. Don’t worry about trying to fix everything that is wrong with the world – fix your own self and everything will be OK. In fact that is the only thing really worth doing. Why? Because the ability of self-improvement is what separates us from the animals. That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion, but religion sure helps as a tool for achieving it.


As muslims we stand before Allah five times a day in humility and surrender, and ask him to “lead us on the straight path”. It is hard enough just to make the time from our own lives to stand there five times a day, but to admit that we are not really getting it right and asking for help to improve takes a lot of work.


There was once a time when people sat and contemplated about these kind of things for most of the day, because they didn’t have much else to do. Here in Pakistan you still see those kind of lives all the time. The other day I was reading about goat herders who travel for nine months of the year from up in the mountains with their goats to bring them to the city for Eid. Nine months of walking! The interviewer said they were the most relaxed people he had ever met. But it is not only them. The women here spend an inordinate amount of time here cutting vegetables and contemplating. You see old men every day who sit out the front of shops with their prayer beads and watch the world go by as they recite. And not only are they contemplating the inner and outer realities, but they are learning.


In these kind of cultures there is a tradition of sitting with old spiritual teachers and learning wisdom from them. It has gone on for generations – the old teach the young, and the young use these learnings in their lives and go on to teach themselves. All of the religions emphasise the importance of this kind of contemplation. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree for more than six years concentrating on the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Muhammad would go for weeks at a time to meditate in a cave on Mt Hira and said “He who knows himself knows his Lord”. Jesus is quoted in Psalms 46:10 as saying that “through stillness we come to know God” and himself spent long hours each day in solitude abiding with God. Every prophet did it.


But now something has gone wrong.


It seems to me that contemplation is no longer on the agenda and true knowledge is much less a valued commodity. Now we are in the era of information and it is all about looking outside at the world (and often criticizing it) rather than looking within. I am new to the blogging scene and have been absolutely blown away at how many people out there are writing and writing and writing. It seems to me that the world is now divided between those who write and those who do not. But what are they writing? In long hours of searching endless random blogs almost everything I read is opinion. Everybody has an opinion about everything. In the past, opinion came from years of life experience and wisdom. Now with the help of the technological age, anyone can have a blog, anyone can have an opinion, anyone can write something and everyone can think of themselves as the next Einstein.


Once upon a time teachers were respected and revered. Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to teach because everyone has their own opinion and the students no longer listen – they want to be teachers themselves.


Every morning my kids and I listen to Linkin Park full bore on our way to school, and to me they are true ambassadors of the age of opinion. I cringe when my three, seven and nine-year old start screaming along “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!!!!” and hope like hell that they don’t understand what they are saying. Actually I have made a conscious decision to let them listen to the voice of their generation rather than suppress it, because they are going to have to face it sometime. Better it is now, when they are still young enough to listen to their mother’s perspective on it (sometimes).


In another example of the information age gone mad, my husband is something of a spiritual teacher and when we lived in Australia, he had a small following of people who would come and listen to him talk. One day a friend of a friend turned up, and immediately we could see that he was not in his senses. A crisis had occurred in his life, and from being a reasonably sane and intelligent young man, he had become like a maniac on speed. He could not stop talking, and none of it made sense – he was completely lost in his mind-chatter. The first thing my husband did was try to explain some simple concepts of focus, but this kid could not even sit still long enough to listen, let alone focus. The first day he talked non-stop for 5 hours straight, and it took many, many more days before he could stop talking long enough to listen. Finally he did slow down, and through meditation and focus exercises managed to still his mind. But this was a great example to us of the result of too much information, too much opinion and not enough real learning.


Another teenage boy who used to work for us would beg my husband to teach him spiritual wisdom, but then would argue with everything he said with his own opinions. It was not learning he wanted, it was affirmation of his opinions. Finally my husband had to say, “Everything you think you know is ZERO! How can I teach you when you have an opinion about everything?” He explained that opinions are like a gate which nothing can penetrate – real learning can only come when that gate is opened and the opinions are set aside. Then the arrogance of thinking you know everything is replaced by the humble desire to understand. And the more you want to understand, the more you look inside to make sense of the world.


Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there is anything wrong with information. But when more and more information is whizzing around faster and faster in cyberspace and nobody is stopping long enough to digest it, the result can easily be opinion without a base and the culture of evaluating and judging everyone but ourselves. Where this will lead us, God only knows, but from my way of thinking it can’t be good. If having fixed opinions leads to the attitude of arguing rather than learning, then it seems to me like it can easily descend into anarchy and chaos.


Tie that in with the enormous black hole of institutional collapse that the global economic crisis has created, and the imminent environmental disasters of global warming etc etc, and the result could be a level of chaos the likes of which has never been conceived.


It seems that only the people who can retain the ability to slow down and contemplate on all this information that will be the learners and doers of society, and be able to clean up their own inner dirt to become better people.


It is ironic that it may be up to the goat herders and old men with prayer beads to lead this new revolution of learning.






A snapshot of Pakistan this morning on the way to school (imagine loud Linkin Park playing on the car stereo in the background and kids fighting…)


Digging Through Dirt in the Land of the Pure

Originally uploaded by orionexpress

Pakistan means literally “the land of the pure”. If you have ever been here you will know what a joke that is. To me, purity is cleanliness, and Pakistan represents everything that is not clean. The streets are full of garbage, the air is full of dust, the water is full of disease, the people are full of selfishness and conceit. What the hell is clean about it???

Now Australia, where I come from, is clean. You never see garbage, you only have to dust once a week, you can wear the same clothes for two days without your whites turning brown, you can drink the tap water with confidence that you are not going to contract a deadly disease. Even the people are friendly and considerate.

Yet still these Pakistanis maintain that their land is pure.

My husband is a wise man and whenever I beseech him to tell my how this garbage dump can be the “land of the pure” he tells me the same thing with unfailing patience. Yes darling, Australia is a very clean country on the outside. But Australia’s apparent cleanliness hides the lurking darkness inside. Sexual perversion, pornography, paedophilia, drug addiction, affairs, alcohol abuse, mental illness, and the list goes on (and on, once he gets wound up). Everyone has their own dirty secrets.

Pakistan on the other hand is filthy on the outside, but clean on the INSIDE (where it matters, he says). The people are truly Muslims in their hearts he maintains, and I have to agree after travelling through many muslim countries myself and wondering where the Islam was… In Pakistan Islam is everywhere. What this means is that everyone is conscious that Allah is watching them. Muslims have the concept that there is an angel on each of our shoulders recording our good and bad deeds. It doesn’t necessarily translate into everyone being good all the time unfortunately. But it does mean that everyone is conscious of what is right and wrong. Intention is a very important concept, because our deeds are also judged by our intentions… in Australia everyone acts politely but so often you can see it is a cover for their underlying malice. Here there is much less hidden. If someone doesn’t like you, they will say it straight out. If someone wants to stare at you, they will not hide it.

A few days ago I was sitting at the gas station having my car filled up when a truck full of labourers rolled up at the next gas pump. Labourers here are pretty much like the labourers everywhere in the world – men who love nothing better than staring. There were about 50 of these guys piled into the back of the truck, and when I looked up, 50 sets of eyes were firmly fixed on me as if I had just landed from Mars. Now in Australia, they would probably look away, but not these guys. No matter how much I stared back, gesticulated at them, and made faces, they continued to stare. I felt like an animal in the zoo. To me this was a great example of the lack of hidden motive that these people have. I was strange to them and they stared. That’s it. There was none of the self consciousness that I would have shown. Simple cause and effect. Although I didn’t like it, there was no pretence.

Pakistan is life in the raw. The need to pretend is stripped back to pure life. Crazy things appear in the chaos of this kind of life. I was driving along the main road to the city the other day and I saw something in the middle of the road up ahead. As I got closer I realised it was an armchair stuck there in the middle of the road. As usual I started abusing the stupid Pakistanis for their nonsensical behaviour, but then as I passed I realised the armchair was covering up a huge gaping hole in the road where a manhole had gone missing. They had nothing else to cover it with, so used the only thing they could find. How simple.

A few months ago my husband’s grandmother, who had been very sick for a long time, died. In Pakistan the tradition is that the funeral takes place on the same day as the death because there are no refrigerated morgues, so in the afternoon we all came to the house to pay our respects to Moji (grandmother in Kashmiri) and attend the “jinazza”. While the men all sat together outside waiting to take the body to the cemetery for burying, the daughters prepared the body by washing and clothing it. Then she was brought out into the room of waiting women on a rough bed. It was a completely open affair – no church, hall or mosque, no closed coffin, no stifled tears, no long boring speeches about how wonderful she was. It was beautiful in it’s complete simplicity. There was much crying and praying while everyone crowded around to say their last farewells. My kids were totally awe-struck. I brought them all up close so they could see their great grandmother for the last time, and their reaction was, “Wow! she is just like she was when she was alive!!!” It totally took the mystery out of death for them. Then my son, who is three, and had always been upset that Moij only had one tooth left, announced jubilantly at the top of his voice “Mamma, maybe Allah will give Moji some new teeth in heaven!!!”. It was one of those classic moments that you know will be repeated and embellished for many years to come.

So yes, Pakistan sure is dirty. It is filthy in fact. But dig through the dirt and you find a cleanliness of spirit that makes life very simple and straightforward. There are far less of the lies and deceit which tie us in knots of confusion and there is no convoluted questioning of the meaning of life because everyone knows what it is. In Islam when someone dies, the people say “Inna lillahi wa inna illayhi rajioun” which means “From Allah we come and back to Allah we return”. It is the cycle of life in it’s absolute simplicity and the kind of purity that goes way deeper than surface dirt.

But if that is the case, what do I have to argue with my husband about?

Goethe’s wisdom

There are nine requisites for contented living:

Health enough to make work a pleasure;
Wealth enough to support your needs;
Strength enough to battle with difficulties and forsake them;
Grace enough to confess your sins and overcome them;
Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished;
Charity enough to see some good in your neighbour;
Love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others;
Faith enough to make real the things of God;
Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(Aug. 28, 1749 – Mar. 22, 1832)

Social barometers of life in Pakistan – the Mazdoors

Pakistan is a society of direct cause and effect. Unlike western countries that these days seem to be buffered by so many layers of protectionsim that they have lost touch with the real world, Pakistan seems completely raw and exposed.


These days the Pakistani economy is suffering badly. Food has doubled and tripled in price in just the last few months to the point where even dhal and roti, the basic staples, are beyond the reach of millions. Yet wages have stayed the same – and that’s if you are lucky enough to have a job. In a society where many millions rely on the money they make in a day to feed their families that night, many are now going hungry day after day.


As I drive each day to drop my children at school, I pass my own personal barometer of the deterioriating economic situation sitting on the side of the road. On my way is an intersection that is a known pick-up point for the “mazdoors” of the area – the labourers who wait with their shovels each morning for builders who need their services. This pick up point is right in the middle of a brand new housing estate full of empty blocks and half-built houses. I have been told that several years ago it was impossible to find a mazdoor anywhere. The economy was booming, and building was going on like crazy in all the new housing colonies of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.


When I started travelling the school route several months ago, most mornings there were about 20 young men standing there on the side of the road with their picks and shovels waiting for their fortune to favour them. I would say a quiet prayer that they would all find work that day and earn enough to feed their families.


Now as I drive past, there are about a hundred of them standing there, and from much earlier in the morning. They are no longer just the young and strong, but now their ranks include men who look like they are great grandfathers with long white beards and hunched backs who should be enjoying their old age in peace and relaxation. There are boys who should be in school, brandishing shovels that are taller than themselves. And there are the young men who now wear faces lined with desperation. All are awaiting fortune to favour them, but none of them seem to believe it will.


They have emerged from the woodwork; those that have been recently retrenched in the spate of factory shutdowns, those that have left other jobs in the hope of more money labouring, those that have come out of retirement to help their family put food on the table, those that have quit school to do the same.


Yes, Pakistan is suffering. As I drive past now, even I feel a sense of desperation as I offer up my usual prayer. Allah is great, but that is a lot of people to give work, especially since building projects seem to have halted as even the developers sit out the bad times.


The saddest part for me each morning is that as the mazdoors sit and wait for work, a pipeline is being dug directly across the road. On it works one lonely mazdoor, digging around a kilometre of trench all by himself. At least he will be able to feed his family tonight.

Musings from the Underbelly of Life in Pakistan

Today I start the rest of my life.

Living here in Pakistan is a challenge at the best of times, and every foreigner I have ever spoken to here (which is not many I have to say) has their small coping mechanisms. Either they travel a lot, they only hang out with other foreigners, they eat a lot of expensive imported food, they never leave their home etc etc etc. I live with my Pakistani in-laws and my brothers and sisters-in-law like a good Pakistani wife, so isolation is not an option for me. I also live in Rawalpindi, not Islamabad, which means there are no other foreigners around. But I dont really want to hang out with them anyway. All they do when they get together here is whinge about Pakistan. I used to be a member of the Foreign Wives Club, but found I would come away from there more depressed than when I arrived. They would whinge and complain about what a terrible place Pakistan was, dressed in their outrageously expensive clothes and covered with gold jewellery, and talking about their five overseas trips that month. I would make the trek to Islamabad for the monthly get-togethers from my dilapidated family house in the grungiest part of Rawalpindi, wearing my best clothes that really didnt cut it with the rich and gorgeous, and bringing no food for the communal table because I couldnt afford fancy imported food. They would ask where I lived and when I offered that I was living in Nia Mohallah Rawalpindi, they would gasp in horror and look at me as if I had announced that I had just contracted leprosy.

After that I gave up on foreigners pretty much.

But that is not to say I have melted into Pakistani society.

I love being different. I wear their clothes, speak their language and try really hard not to stand out like a sore thumb, but my husband says that I am still conspicuous as a foreigner from 500 metres away. Why? Because I carry myself differently. I am not downtrodden, I am not afraid, I dont walk three paces behind my husband, I am not afraid to have a personality, and I am not afraid of talking to people in the street. A few days ago I was in a men’s barber getting my son’s hair cut. I was sitting quietly when another man came in and started talking to the barber. They were discussing his wife’s recent trip to Karachi in Urdu, and given that I could understand what they were saying, offered a comment about how long it takes to get to Karachi yet it is only a relatvely short distance. The two men looked up at me in absolute shock. Because I had been sitting quietly the newcomer had not paid much attention to me when he had walked in, and now realizing that I must be a foreigner, said in astonishment that a Pakistani woman would NEVER enter a discussion with men outside their home, not because they were not allowed, but because they were afraid.

Well thanks God afraid is one thing I am not or I could never live here.

A few days ago I was driving back alone from the bazaar and had stopped my car out the front of my house to open the gate and drive inside. A woman I vaguely recognised was walking along the street and as she passed me I offered Salaams. She stopped in surprise and asked me if I recognised her. I said yes, but I really had no idea where I had seen her before. She proceed to start chatting, wanting to know why I was going to the bazaar alone ( women NEVER go anywhere alone in this society), where I was from, what my husband did for a job (always high on the list of questions so they can assess if I am rich or not), whether I owned the house or rented it etc etc etc. As she was leaving she again warned me against going out alone. I stated that mostly I didnt have any choice because I had noone to go with and besides I was an Australian woman and much more used to independance. A few days later she came back to my house and rang the bell, calling me downstairs. She asked me if I ever went to China Market, a bazaar in the city, and I said yes ocassionally. She proceeded to tell me that I could take her there that day so that I would not have to go alone!! I laughed, thinking that she was joking, and said sorry I couldnt go during the day because I was working. Ok then take me this evening!” she said. Trying desperately to extricate myself from the situation without seeming too rude, I apologised and escaped inside.

That is what it is like as a foreigner here. Everyone wants you to conform, yet everyone wants a part of your “difference”. I can get away with much more as a foreigner, yet I also attract plenty of crazies like this lady.

I do love being different though. My favourite thing is driving to school to pick up my kids. It is about half an hour drive through a new housing estate where there are always lots of poor labourers and people of all shapes and sizes. I especially love the juxtaposition. There are donkeys pulling carts full of grass, there are tractors driving along the middle of the road, there are no road rules whatsoever, there are buffalo standing stupidly in the middle of the road blocking all the traffic. Then there are the shiny black BMWs belonging to the property owners who completely disregard everyone else and drive like they own the road (they probably do actually).

And then there is me. I drive a bashed up dirty old Nissan and love the fact that I am not the typical fat cat foreigner in a flashy car. Here being a foreigner is intrinsically linked with wealth, yet I am neither wealthy or trying to look wealthy. My kids and I love Linkin Park, a heavy metal band from the US,and as I drive along I have them on loud. It is a thing with the youth of this country that they are obsessed with playing their bollywood tunes at FULL volume (no matter how much distortion) on their car stereos jsut like the hip hop fiends who cruise along in Sydney with their music blaring. Well I dont play bollywood,and I dont play hip hop. I play Linkin Park. So my favourite thing is living the juxtaposition of listening to loud Linkin Park while waiting for the buffaloes to cross the street.

Perhaps I sound very irreverent, but I am actually a very dedicated converted Muslim and try really hard not to do anything that goes against my religion. Perhaps the swearing in Linkin Park songs is pushing that a bit, but there is nothing in my beautiful religion that says that women have to be afraid. It is something that is bred into Pakistani women in particular, and to me it is a negation of the wonderful strength that Allah has given women. I would love to be remembered as an example of strength.

Many years ago I was in Greece and I bought a tshirt that had greek writing on it. It became my favourite tshirt, and it was not until I returned to Australia that I found out that the words on it said “I am brave, I ma strong, I am free” and was a famous saying of a old scholar from Crete.

That slogan has become my theme in life, and I remember it every day, especially as a woman living here in Pakistan.

So this is the beginning of my blogging. I am hoping that like the other foreigners with their various coping mechanisms, this will be my lifeline and my sanity. Perhaps it can even offer something to someone else out there in cyberspace.

I am brave, I am strong, I am free.



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